Retired Alaska Board of Fisheries member Al Cain is unretired, and non-commercial fishing groups from around the state are declaring victory.
Gov. Bill Walker had been planning to replace Cain, a 62-year-old former Alaska State Trooper who worked all over the state before settling in Anchorage, with 62-year-old Duncan Fields, a lawyer, commercial fisheries consultant, and longtime commercial fisherman from Kodiak.
Fields is an established player in Alaska fishing issues who spent nine years as part of the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council family. Sport and personal-use fishing groups were gearing up to fight his appointment in the Alaska Legislature, where lawmakers must confirm the governor’s choices to the Board that has historically determined state fishing policy.
Ricky Gease of the Kenai Sportfishing Association said the issue wasn’t so much with Fields, but with the governor leaving the Board without representation for the state’s largest city and weighting the panel toward commercial fishing interests.
The Board is often put in the position of allocating salmon between commercial and non-commercial interests, and Walker has been a big supporter of commercial interests.
“The Walker administration has been fish friendly, commercial fish friendly, great on the Board of Fish, great on appointments, great on everything,” Robert Thorstenson Jr., a former president of the United Fishermen of Alaska, and a lobbyist for the Southeast Alaska Seiners Assocation and other commercial fishing groups, told the Juneau Empire. “We love this administration. I love this administration. I think the governor is doing a tremendous job with his fisheries team.”
The UFA is the lobbying arm of Alaska commercial fishermen. The hottest allocation issues before the Board in recent years have focused on Cook Inlet, the waterway that laps at the front door of Anchorage.
Commercial fishermen are a tiny minority in Alaska, but they hold a lot of power in the state capital thanks to political donations, and the influence of legislators who are commercial fishermen or former commercial fishermen.
But more than half of the population of Alaska lives in the Anchorage Metropolitan Area where sport and personal-use fishermen vastly out number commercial fishermen, and Walker is facing re-election in 2018.
Against this backdrop, the governor announced late Wednesday via press release that Fields “withdrew his name so that Mr. Cain will have the opportunity to serve a second term. The Governor is grateful to Mr. Fields for his willingness to join the Board and for his graciousness in stepping aside.”
Fields could not be reached for comment. What exactly precipitated Fields’s withdrawal and how exactly Cain came to be reappointed might never be known. The last time a Walker appointee withdrew from the Fish Board prior to legislative confirmation it was Walker friend Roland Maw from Kasilof.
At the time, Maw, the former director of the United Cook Inlet Drift Association, suggested his decision was due to the long-running Cook Inlet fish war between commercial and non-commercial fishing interests.
As it turned out, there was a far simpler explanation. Maw was in trouble in Montana, his home state, for claiming to be a Montana resident while also claiming to be an Alaska resident in order to save a few bucks on fishing and hunting licenses in both states.
There have been rumors that Walker asked Maw to withdraw after learning of Maw’s potential legal problems, but Walker has never admitted to that. Maw was eventually convicted of violating Montana law.
He managed to dodge later felony charges of illegally obtaining Alaska Permanent Fund Dividends, but still faces charges similar to those in Montana accusing of him of lying on Alaska licenses.
Fields’ withdrawal from the Fish Board – whether voluntary or requested – saved Walker a potentially nasty and public fight with some Anchorage and Matanuska-Susitna Borough legislators unhappy with the appointment. Non-commercial fishing interests on Thursday seemed content to claim victory after the Cain appointment and fade away.
Gease made no mention of Walker’s past association with commercial fishing interests in a printed statement.
“This outcome will restore Anchorage’s representation on the Board and maintains the balance among commercial, sport, personal use and subsistence interests on the Board,” it said. “We applaud Alaska-sporting-groups, anglers and personal-use dip netters across the state for reaching out to policy makers about fair and balanced representation on the Board of Fisheries.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified the fishing organization for which Robert Thorstenson Jr. lobbies.